Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Good "Teacher" Paradox: The Less You Know The Better You Are?

There is no doubt that many of us (whether educators or not) have at one point entered into the pedagogical mastery vs content knowledge debate. The basic question is whom would you rather have as your teacher: one who has a mastery of appropriate pedagogical skills (how to "teach") or one who is an expert on the content in the discipline? The answer to this question usually determines whether you believe in the notion that any skilled "teacher" could "teach" any given subject. image (Colin_K via flickr)
My cop-out answer usually falls somewhere in them middle. I do think a good teacher can take any content and guide the students to success. On the other hand, I do think it helps a lot to have content mastery when clarifying student knowledge or answering questions. Let me give you a different angle on this. Something I have now dubbed the good "teacher" paradox.

The good "teacher" paradox goes something like this. The less you know about the lesson's eventual output the better you are as an educator. What do I mean by this? If you have structured a class, lesson, or unit where the students are expected to create content, construct knowledge, ask questions, challenge the norm, or take a new angle you (the teacher) will often not have the answer. If I allow my students to frame their own learning on a topic, if I give them autonomy, if I give allow them to produce their own questions on a topic, I might not know the answer. I do not hold the answer sheet to their own thinking. In effect, I have to answer their own questions with them. This may in fact be why some teachers have a hard time making class student centered. Real student learning often leaves you scrambling for an answer or trying to figure out a problem WITH the student. It can be troubling to not be "prepared" to instantly know the answer to a student question. But at the same time this is why I love teaching---I get to learn and be challenged all day long. I am always on my toes. Do I always know the outcome? No, but I think that is something good teachers accept as a good lesson and good "teaching".

This epiphany of the good "teacher" paradox came to me as I subbed for the math teacher all last week. As she was gone, I was expected to teach 8th grade math all week (a truly terrifying endeavor for a history teacher). But the teacher left a truly awesome project where they needed to design a carnival game based on probability. Even if I would have spent all weekend reviewing probability, I wouldn't have canned answers to a worksheet. In fact, the opposite was true. I had no way of anticipating what they would come up with. All week I had the attitude that I was going to learn with them and that we were going to challenge ourselves. With every problem they threw at me I had to go back and relearn probability. It was tough at first, but when I "got it", wow did we have fun. I may have not had the best content or pedagogical knowledge, but I was a darn good math teacher last week. Thus is the good "teacher" paradox: The less you know the better you are?


  1. I think, as you mentioned, too, that the answer lies somewhere in between.
    The "good" teacher may develop a certain mindset - being the "expert" in the field, respectively. That comes with a certain pattern of thinking and reacting to student cognitive and behavioral responses. And, in some cases, it narrows down the approach and strategies (s)he uses - the danger being that (s)he will slowly begin to teach the subject instead of the students.
    On the other hand, you were comfortable being the math teacher because you were supposed to teach that class for a week. I don't think you could stretch that confidence and experimentation for a whole year (am I wrong?...).

  2. Thank you for your comment. I think the hardest thing would be designing lessons units and classes. Part of the reason for my success was due to the creative lesson that was given to me. I think content knowledge may be most helpful in designing and creating meaningful learning experiences. You have to have some vague idea of what the end will look like. I couldn't design a math class to get students to an end goal as I am missing the knowledge of steps and content. But at the same time the idea of not knowing leads to flexibility, crativity and innovation. Just my thoughts. Thanks for yours.

  3. We're living in an unprecedented age of open information where students and teachers have access to textbooks, a huge online repository of course materials, lecture videos, expert Q&A and academic research. It's never been easier to learn some course material and teach that same material to students at the same time. Its important to have educated teachers in front of a classroom for many reasons, but not because their education is the only place to find content to teach the kids. A challenge for teachers today, is learning how to step beyond one's fixed lesson plan and figure out how to make learning an engaging and interactive collaboration with the students.

  4. AMEN! You voiced my opinions in a clearer way than I ever could have.

  5. I thought long and hard about this post of yours and finally decided to respond to it with a blog post of my own: